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Transformation on the Southern Ukrainian Steppe: Letters and Papers of Johann Cornies Volume 1:1812-1835.

Harvey L. Dyck, Ingrid I. Epp, and John R. Staples, eds.; Ingrid I. Epp, trans. Transformation on the Southern Ukrainian Steppe: Letters and Papers of Johann Cornies Volume 1:1812-1835. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2015. Pp. 576.

This is the first of a projected three-volume collection of selected correspondence and papers associated with the noted Russian Mennonite leader Johann Cornies (1789-1848). It is based on the extensive collection of Cornies and Wiebe family papers located in the Ukrainian State Archives of the Odessa region. These papers, which became muddled with a collection of archives of the Molochna Colony hidden with the Cornies material after the Russian Revolution, were seized by the Soviets in the 1920s and presumed lost. However, they had, in fact, been carefully preserved and catalogued by archivists in Odessa and, having survived the Nazi occupation during World War II, were relocated by Mennonite scholars in the 1990s. Subsequently, Harvey L. Dyck arranged to have the entire archive microfilmed and, peculiarly, renamed the Peter J. Braun Russian Mennonite Archive. Copies were deposited in a number of Mennonite library and archive collections. For the purposes of this volume, however, the letters and related documents are identified as belonging to their original source and given the call marks first assigned by Ukrainian archivists.

The editors present the letters in date order and include a number of appendixes, the most significant of which are what the editors refer to as Cornies' ethnographic writings on his non-Mennonite Molochna neighbors, including other foreign colonists, Nogai Tatars, Doukhobors, and Molokans. The editors chose the items on a number of grounds. These include the manner in which the sources reflect Cornies' administrative role and policies, such as his connections with government officials and organizations; Cornies' links with Mennonites and non-Mennonites relating to religious topics; Cornies' influences on Mennonites and non-Mennonites in education, religion, and economic development; and, finally, sources that relate to Cornies' personal life, family, and friends.

The collection presents the basis for a major advance in our understanding of aspects of Mennonite life in Russia during the first half of the nineteenth century and of the role of Cornies in the transformation of the Mennonite economy and society and the wider development of the region. As such, they supplement existing scholarship on Mennonites, other foreign colonists, and the wider economic development of the region. In contextualizing the collection, however, the editors do not acknowledge all this work either in their introduction to the volume or in the subsequent editorial apparatus connected with the letters and documents.

The letters in particular raise more issues than the editors have chosen to address. Space does not allow me to do more than identify several of many interesting aspects. The connections between Cornies and outside religious ideas, particularly his association with Mennonites and non-Mennonites outside Russia, including his association with the Swiss missionary Daniel Schlatter, are of major interest. Cornies' interest in foreign books to develop his own intellect and to further his plans for changes in agriculture and education is revealed in the titles he obtained and how he distributed literature, providing an insight into the importation of foreign ideas and techniques. The sources of Cornies' wealth and its connection to special privileges he managed to secure over alcohol production and distribution reveal aspects never mentioned in David H. Epp's first major study of Cornies, published in 1909, especially since Epp appears to have had access to the same Cornies papers. There are also a number of issues raised in the letters involving his often-stormy relationship with fellow Mennonites and events that challenged his power and authority. The basis of this power obviously lay in part in his personality, intellect, and abilities, as well as the alliances he developed within and beyond the Mennonite world, particularly with Russian officials, and in the backing he received from the regional and central governments. This becomes much clearer in reading the letters.

While all this is very interesting and illuminating, this elegantly produced volume could have been much improved if the editors had better contextualized the material, linked it to other archival sources and contemporary and secondary sources, attended to details, and taken the time to correct names and titles of books. Again, space does not permit a full list of the many errors and shortcomings of the volume, but a few comments indicate the range and extent of the problem.

Although the editors claim they make use of other archival sources, this is not apparent from the text. The Odessa archives contain other collections of documents, particularly the administrative files of the bodies controlling foreign colonists, which themselves contain files on issues raised in the correspondence. This includes complex cases involving murder, suicide, theft, and the banishment of individuals. The files relating to these issues, and other matters raised in Cornies' correspondence, have also been microfilmed and indexed by other Mennonites, particularly the late Paul Toews, and are readily available in North America. Yet no mention or use of them has been made in editing this collection. The David G. Rempel Papers located in the Fisher Library in Toronto contain material from St. Petersburg archives, and other material from these collections has been copied in more recent years.

Furthermore, there are some obvious issues involving the transcription of the letters. While Epp must be congratulated on her work, questions arise when names and titles of books are checked against other sources and reveal some serious errors. Various names, initials, and other items are clearly incorrect, the most comical being the mistranscription of the title of a book by Hensius as a book on sheep husbandry (Schaaflehre), when it is in fact a book on grammar (Sprachlehre) (167).

The introduction, which appears under Staples's name, contains numerous errors and misrepresentations and fails to provide sufficient notice of existing scholarship to properly contextualize and evaluate the significance of the collection. Whether this is a result of ignorance or design is unclear. A simple check of the Global Anabaptist-Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO) would have corrected any suggestion that Jacob van der Smissen was a member of "a noted Swiss pietist family" (xl). Staples has obviously muddled this noted north German Mennonite family with the non-Mennonite Schlatters of St. Gallen, but Daniel Schlatter was not a "Separatist missionary" to the Nogai (xxxix) as he did not separate from the established church until 1840, long after he returned from Molochna. The Balzer Brief was never published in Russia in the 1830s as Staples suggests (xliv), but first appeared in print in North America in the 1880s and was subsequently translated and published in this journal by Robert Friedmann in 1948, a fact Staples misrepresents in his reference (lvi) to Delbert Plett's much later re-publication of Friedmann's text and commentary.

The assembling of primary sources in itself, no matter how informative, does not result in history nor does it advance scholarship without proper contextualization. That is the responsibility of historians acting either as competent editors of documents or as authors of scholarly monographs. One hopes that subsequent volumes will be edited with greater care and competence and thereby give proper value to the significant material the collection contains.

JAMES URRY Victoria University of Wellington
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Author:Urry, James
Publication:Mennonite Quarterly Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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